No Change on Climate Change, Are Fuel Cells the Answer?


To all who’ve been gratified by President Obama’s recent lip service to action on climate change, here’s what’s really been happening:

Tar sands oil pipeline muck / via

*  The administration opened almost a million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon to mining and drilling for tar sands and shale oil. It’s chiefly foreign companies that are trying to get at the filthy stuff.

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*  Within a matter of months, energy companies may be allowed, for the first time in decades, to use dangerous methods of exploring for oil and gas in offshore areas from Delaware to Florida, opening the way for much more drilling in the fashion of BP and Deepwater Horizon.

*  The “war on coal” allegedly being waged by the Obama White House—which would be a really good idea—is a fiction. In fact, the administration still clings to another fiction: the president’s campaign rhetoric favoring “clean coal.”

*  Cleaner coal-burning power plants were to rely on carbon sequestration, in which “permanent” burial of carbon dioxide meant 400 years. Because even this was too expensive for the industry, now the trade-off is for more oil production.

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Wind Turbine Farm
Sustainable and Clean: The Alta Wind Energy Center in California / via

*  The nation’s power needs to come from sustainable, clean sources, but the president touts an “all-of-the-above” policy that relies largely on shale gas, with all the problems of fracking and injection wells, as an interim measure.

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* Even the Environmental Protection Agency, whose proposal of some rules changes to modestly reduce coal’s dangerous emissions sparked the “war on coal” outcry, concedes that coal will be part of the energy “mix”—meaning mixture of power-generation devices—for decades to come. Most self-described experts see the future containing oil and coal for a long time, with increasing dependence on natural gas and nuclear plants, and wind and solar generation only at the margins.

Frankly, all this should be seen by an educated and discerning public as unacceptable—not that we have a particularly well-educated public, let alone a discerning one, on these issues. For some facts about climate change and its consequences, let’s go to a moderate, respected organization from well inside the political and cultural establishment. Let’s go to the Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy reports that forest fires in the western United States occur four times more frequently, with six and a half times the amount of land scorched annually, since 1970—direct results of earlier springs and higher temperatures.

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The same report cites predictions of up to a 36-inch rise in sea levels in the coming century. This would destroy every coastal city from Boston to Miami, inclusive.

Heat-related illness and deaths are already multiplying, and the economic losses from climate change are only beginning to wreak their horrors.

These American calamities are a tiny fraction of the global problem. Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly, creating huge risks of floods. Moreover, something like a billion people rely on the glaciers for water, and when they’re gone the region will be mostly dry. Most prognostications have it that the poor will, as usual, be hit hardest, but absolutely no one is immune to these problems, and no one except the poor can escape responsibility for them.

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The changes date to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and many scientists believe that without that historical event and its increase in the use of fossil fuels, the earth would be in a cooling period. Fossil-fuel consumption is to blame for this global catastrophe, and the fact is not in doubt among serious scientists.

fuel cell
How a fuel cell works:
The Membrane Electrode Assembly
Diagram by Wikimedia user CFA213FCE

So, if we are to avoid the collapse of the world as we know it, it is fossil-fuel consumption that has to change—soon and radically, not with a prolonged and comfortable “mix” of unpredictable proportions. This means a breakthrough in science is required. Imagine this: Wind and solar power are used to generate hydrogen, and we treat hydrogen in storage as a kind of battery. That is, we distribute the stuff all over the world to power the global fleet of cars and trucks with fuel cells, whose only emission is water vapor.

There’s a problem with this. Hydrogen fuel cells at a scale that would free us from fossil fuels don’t yet work well or very cost effectively. Most researchers in the field think the technical problems are complex, but not insuperable. What if we devoted $50 billion—roughly a month’s worth of U.S. military spending—to training and hiring scientists to work specifically on these problems?

We’re not going to do that. The next two columns in this space will be devoted to the reasons why: a lack of faith in science and commitment to it; and the deeper problem in the political system, which is its sources of money.

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